Principles of Sidewalkery: Public v. Private

publiclife1.jpgSesame Street is a bad model for public space.

Often, when I talk to people about the value of sidewalks, I will get into arguments about how much intimacy is appropriate in cities. People assume that, because I want to see more public spaces where different kinds of people ‘share space’ with each other, that I want everybody to hang out and be friends, chatting, singing songs, playing games, and sharing stories. You know, like a Sesame Street episode.

For example, I was talking to my sister the other day about why skyways suck. As we walked along 7th Place in Downtown Saint Paul, I pointed out how cool it was that the homeless people hung out at one end of the block, and café diners hung out at the other. They were sharing space, I said, and it was good for both groups to be coexisting with each other.

“So, why didn’t you stop and talk to the homeless people?” my sister asked.

“That’s not the point.” I replied after a pause. “I’m sure that would have been terribly uncomfortable for both of us.”

The point is that sidewalks, parks, and squares are good public spaces precisely because you can learn about different kinds of people without actually talking to them. That’s exactly what public life is about. Different kinds of people can watch each other, present themselves to each other, interact or not interact as they choose.